Sleep Issues & Autism: Guide for Parents and SENCOs

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    Sleep Issues and Autism: A Guide for Teachers, SENCOs and Parents

    Sleep plays a crucial role in child development and daily functioning. However, for children with Autism (ASD), achieving consistent, restful sleep can be a challenge. Understanding the intersection of autism and sleep issues is essential for educators, as it can have significant impacts on a child’s learning, behaviour, and overall wellbeing. Some of these points can be highly emotive. Some of the points below may be hard to read but to start working through issues it is important that you are reflective and self-aware. This post relates to both parents and teachers as sleep issues will impact all parts of a child’s day and if the family, school and maybe respite facilities can work together without judgement the issues will be easier to tackle.

    Addressing Sleep Challenges in Autism

    High Prevalence of Sleep Issues

    • About 80% of those on the autism spectrum have sleep disorders like insomnia, night terrors, and disrupted REM patterns.
    • Both autistic individuals and their parents commonly suffer from sleep deprivation.
    • These can manifest as various additional problems, including difficulty falling asleep, inconsistent sleep routines, restlessness during sleep, and early morning waking.

    Potential Causes of Sleep Issues

    • Linked medical factors like gastrointestinal pain, and seizures can disrupt sleep in autistic children.
    • Irregular melatonin production and mutations in sleep-related genes may play a role.
    • Lack of quality sleep exacerbates intolerance to sensory stimuli and impairs learning and memory consolidation.
    • Sensory sensitivities: Children with autism often experience heightened sensitivity to the environment, which might include sensitivity to certain types of clothing, light, noise, and temperature, all of which can affect sleep.
    • Many children with autism experience anxiety, which can make it more challenging to relax and fall asleep, this can be influenced by occurances during the day of concerns about the next day.
    • Certain medications used to manage autism symptoms can interfere with sleep.

    Parent-Tested Autism & Sleep Strategies – Bedtime Routines

    • Calming evening routines using stories, songs, and weighted blankets aid the transition to sleep.
    • Setting a regular bedtime and wake time, limiting naps, and avoiding screens helps regulate circadian rhythms.
    • Visual cues like closed doors signal that it’s time for bed.
    • Melatonin or other medication can help, but should be researched thoroughly and started slowly.
    • Sleep interventions incorporating structure, schedules, and self-soothing techniques can be beneficial.
    • Consistency is key – A consistent routine before bed can signal to the child that it’s time to sleep. This could include activities such as reading a book, listening to calming music, or taking a warm bath. It may take time for autistic children to establish healthy sleep patterns.
    • Making the child’s bedroom conducive to sleep can make a big difference. This can mean using blackout curtains, providing noise-cancelling headphones, or using weighted blankets.
    • Visual schedules can help children understand and follow their bedtime routine.
    • Regular physical activity during the day can help promote better sleep.
    • Limit screen time throughout the day especially before bed.

    Sleep Environment

    • A comfortable, dark, quiet space tailored to the individual child’s needs optimises sleep.
    • Co-sleeping arrangements should be assessed for their impact on the whole family’s rest.
    • Clear sleep boundaries and separation from parents’ bedroom encourages independence and becomes increasingly important as the child gets older. Setting boundaries when they are younger is easier to implement.
    • A soft night-light to reduce wariness of the dark and enable you to attend to them without putting the main light on.

    Sleep Issues and Links to Wider Quality of Life

    • Sleep often relates to factors like stress, trauma, family dynamics, and mental health. Addressing the root causes holistically is important.
    • Supporting parents’ wellbeing nurtures the entire family. Respite allows parents to recharge. Early help may be able to advise and signpost support.
    • Partners should communicate their needs and share caregiving duties especially during nights of interrupted sleep.
    Autism and Sleep - Still Awake Book Lyndsey Hookway
    Recommended Book on Sleep Issues

    Impact of Sleep Issues on Learning and Behaviour

    Quality sleep is vital for all children to function effectively in their daily activities, including learning at school. Lack of sleep can lead to various challenges:

    • Decreased Concentration: Sleep deprivation can make it harder for children to concentrate, impairing their ability to learn.
    • Behavioural Issues: Children may exhibit more behavioural issues, such as hyperactivity, aggression, or increased repetitive behaviours.
    • Emotional Regulation: Lack of sleep can make it more challenging to regulate emotions, which may result in increased meltdowns or difficulties coping with change.

    Strategies for Supporting Students with Sleep Issues

    As educators, understanding the challenges that students with autism face regarding sleep is the first step. Here are some strategies that can help support these students:

    Classroom Adjustments for Sleep Issues for Autistic Pupils

    • Flexible Learning Environment: Consider options for a more flexible learning environment, such as allowing for short breaks during the day, providing a quiet space for relaxation, or using visual schedules to help students understand and anticipate the day’s routine.
    • Individualized Learning Plan: An individualized learning plan that considers the child’s unique needs, including the impact of sleep issues, can be beneficial. This might include incorporating more hands-on or interactive tasks to engage a tired student, or scheduling more demanding tasks during their peak alertness times.

    Communication with Parents

    • Regular Communication: Regular check-ins with parents can help keep you informed about the child’s sleep patterns and how they might be affecting their behaviour and learning.
    • Share Observations: Share your observations with parents. They might not be aware of the impact of sleep issues on their child’s school performance.

    Collaboration with School Support Staff

    • Utilise School Resources: Collaborate with school support staff like special education teachers, school psychologists, and the SENCO. They can provide additional strategies and resources to support the student.
    Sleep Issues & Autism: Guide for Parents and SENCOs

    Frequently Asked Questions about Sleep and Autism

    Q1: What should I do if a student with autism falls asleep in class?

    A: If a student falls asleep in class, it’s an indication that they are not getting adequate sleep. Communication with parents is key. Share your observations with them, and collaborate to find strategies that might help the child get more sleep at home. There is also the possibility that they are falling asleep as a type of masking or overwhelm. Can you adapt their timetable to include elements of low and high arousal?

    Should I let a child sleep in school?

    Unless there is a good medical reason this should be avoided. It can have significant impact on home life. It may be trialled In agreement with parents as a reasonable adjustment if the child really needs it. If a child has a long journey on transport to their school they may fall asleep on the journey. It is essential this is communicated to parents so they can plan accordingly.

    Q2: How can I help a student with autism who seems tired and unfocused?

    A: Flexibility is crucial. Allow for short breaks or quieter activities when the child seems tired. Consider alternative ways of engaging the student, such as hands-on or interactive tasks. Outdoor learning and the use of frequent breaks can really help engagement.

    Q3: Should I adjust the student’s learning expectations if they’re having sleep issues?

    A: Yes, adjusting the workload may be necessary. Consider quality over quantity. Prioritise essential tasks and provide extended time for completion. Remember, the goal is to support learning without causing additional stress. If sleep is an ongoing issue it should be reflected in the child’s EHCP targets


    Understanding the interplay between autism and sleep issues is crucial for educators. Regular communication with parents, flexibility in the classroom, and collaboration with school support staff can go a long way in supporting students with autism who face sleep challenges. It’s a team effort that requires empathy, patience, and understanding, but the rewards — a thriving, learning child — are worth it. Remember, every child with autism is unique, and what works for one might not work for another. Be open, be adaptable, and most importantly, be supportive, and you’ll create a positive learning environment for your students.

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